Family reunification program changes worry some in Winnipeg

Some Winnipeggers have concerns about the federal government's new criteria for sponsoring parents and grandparents to come to Canada, the CBC's Donna Carreiro writes.
Winnipeg families are expressing concerns over the way grandparents are handled under the federal government's new reunification program standards. CBC's Aadel Haleem reports. 1:52

On paper, Sarah Esperanza was exactly the kind of immigrant that Canada would not want today.

She knew no English, she had no income, she had no idea how she would support herself, and she had even planned to bring family members from home once she got here.

All in all, she would appear to be a potential welfare-receiving, non-tax-paying drain on Canadian resources.

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"But I refused welfare when I first came to Canada," said Esperanza, who arrived here from El Salvador 30 years ago with just $75 to her name.

"I think it's a choice that [people] take to go to welfare. Because here, is a lot of work, a lot of things that we can do."

Today, Esperanza runs El Izalco, a successful grocery store on Winnipeg's Sargent Avenue. She's also a property owner with three grown kids.

None of her children went on social assistance and all of them, like her, make a good living and pay their taxes.

But the federal government is implementing more restrictions on those who want to emigrate here, and on those already here who want to bring family over to join them.

The reason? They're costing us too much money.

'Abuse of Canada's generosity'

According to federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, too many family-class immigrants — sponsored by loved ones already here — end up on welfare, in public housing and in our hospitals.

And the numbers back him up. Upwards of 12 per cent of them do end up on social assistance, far more than the rest of the population.

And the health-care costs? Kenney estimates that for each senior immigrant who comes here at age 65, they wind up using upwards of $200,000 worth of health-care resources.

Kenney referred to this as an "abuse of Canada's generosity." 

The solution? Starting next year, if immigrants want to sponsor a loved one, they'll have to prove they make a minimum $55,000 per household.

They will have to commit to supporting their family members for 20 years — up until now, it was 10 years — and they won't be able to sponsor adults who want to come as dependants (as opposed to getting a job).

The flip side, of course, is that the vast majority of economic-class immigrants (those with skills) may start on welfare, but don't stay on it. In fact, on average, about two and a half per cent of them access social assistance — fewer than half of the general population.

Still, even Esperanza agrees with Kenney that some immigrants abuse the system. In fact, she said she sees it "all the time."

"Of course, a lot of people do want to use an excuse that they don't speak very good English, they haven't gone to school. What can I say? Many excuses they use," she said.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people do that."

Fuelling misconceptions

But critics say this is exactly the kind of fear-mongering that fuels misconceptions about the economic impact of immigrants.

"That can happen with any system, and that's often used as a way of introducing really draconian measures that impact many, many people," said Louise Simbandumewe of the Immigration Matters in Canada Coalition.

"What they're presenting is a very skewed picture that ignores a lot of realities."

Those realities, said Simbandumewe, include the results of a 2009 study from Dalhousie University, which found that more than 40 per cent of the parents and grandparents who make up family-class immigrants do find work. And that number is higher when you factor in all other family-class immigrants.

Another 30 per cent work inside the home as child-care providers, the study added.

It's an important factor that shouldn't be undermined, Simbandumewe said.

"I think we all know how difficult it is to find safe and reliable child care and how important that is in terms of our economic growth and for our labour market," she said. "They're making economic contributions that way."

Esperanza too, thinks it's just a handful of immigrants who ruin it for the rest.

In fact, she too, wishes she could bring more family members here to join her and work in her store.

It's a wish that she knows, under the newest federal guidelines, will likely not be fulfilled.

However, she said she'll always hold onto the Canadian dream and she'll always be grateful she is living it.

"Here for us, for everybody, the sky is the limit," she said.